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Saudi Arabia

House of Lords written question – answered on 6th June 2011.

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Photo of Baroness Tonge Baroness Tonge Liberal Democrat

To ask Her Majesty's Government what assessment they have made of the rights of women in Saudi Arabia; and whether they have made representations to the Government of Saudi Arabia about how they could improve these.

Photo of Lord Howell of Guildford Lord Howell of Guildford Minister of State (Foreign and Commonwealth Office) (International Energy Policy)

We have serious concerns about the human rights situation in Saudi Arabia and we have made our views well known, including through the Universal Periodic Review process and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office Human Rights Report. We have four priority areas, one of which is women's rights. At the root of the problem of the treatment of women in Saudi Arabia is the guardianship system, which grants a male relative authority over every woman. The male family member can refuse permission for the woman to study, travel or work. There is also an extensive system of segregation which limits women's ability to play a full part in public life. Women, with some exceptions, may not work in a workplace with men. They may not drive.

On 15 May 2011 King Abdullah opened the largest female university campus in the world. There has been progress on female education in recent years. In 2009 King Abdullah opened the Kingdoms first co-education university north of Jeddah. And the King Abdullah Scholarship Programme is educating tens of thousands of Saudi women at universities worldwide. While the number and quality of female universities continues to rise, many subjects are not deemed appropriate and are unavailable to women. Employment opportunities are still limited, and major challenges remain. Local elections will be held in September 2011, but despite promises made when the elections were held in 2005, women are again excluded from voting or standing as candidates.

The Saudi Government have so far failed to remove the main institutional barriers to women, most notably the guardianship system. We continue to take every opportunity to urge the Saudi Government to remove the guardianship system of women, as the UK recommended at Saudi Arabia's Universal Periodic Review in February 2009. The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, my honourable friend Alistair Burt discussed human rights during his visit to Saudi Arabia on 26 and 27 April 2011, when he met the chair of the Governmental Saudi Human Rights Commission, Bandar Al Aiban.

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